In 2021, a high schooler invented a beet juice-infused suture thread that changes color when it detects infection in a surgical wound. Adding basketball movements to math instruction boosted mastery and perceived autonomy in students. And a medical student in London developed a visual handbook to provide doctors and patients with a greater range of images to identify skin conditions on darker skin tones. As the year wraps up, the NOVA Education team shares its favorite stories, studies, and resources from 2021.
Seventeen-year-old Dasia Taylor was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search for her suture thread that changes color when it detects infection in a wound.
“I found that beets changed color at the perfect pH point,” Taylor told Smithsonian Magazine. “Bright red beet juice turns dark purple at a pH of nine, that's perfect for an infected wound.”
Taylor was inspired by high tech smart sutures that can sense changes in a wound and send signals to a doctor or patient's smartphone. However, realizing that this expensive tech might not be accessible in situations and countries where internet access and mobile technology are limited, Taylor decided to focus on a more equitable solution. Taylor believes this new suture could be particularly useful for quickly identifying surgical infections after Cesarean sections. About 11% of surgical wounds in low- and middle-income countries develop an infection, according to the World Health Organization, compared to 2% to 4% of surgeries in the U.S. Surgical wound infections contribute to U.S. patients spending more than 400,000 extra days in the hospital and cost an additional $10 billion per year.
Taylor hopes her sutures will help patients and doctors detect infections as early as possible, so they can get medical attention quickly.
In an effort to make math instruction more active and less sedentary for students, researchers from the University of Copenhagen took their study to the basketball court. Over the course of six weeks, 750 children ranging in age from 7 to 12 years were randomly selected to participate in math sessions either while playing basketball or in a traditional classroom without physical activity. Over the course of the study, researchers measured students’ level of intrinsic motivation—how much they engaged in activities due to sheer enjoyment—and feelings of competence after every lesson using an Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) questionnaire. They found that students who engaged in basketball-based learning experienced significant cognitive and academic benefits including a boost in math mastery, intrinsic motivation, and perceived autonomy compared with peers learning in the classroom without physical activity.
What if we taught school subjects around common themes like climate change or food security instead of in subject silos? This is exactly what education researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh are recommending. They argue that subjects should not be taught independently of one another. Instead, they propose that the arts and sciences should “teach together” around real-world problems, and in a manner rooted in students' lived experiences. This builds on the body of research surrounding integrated learning, which educational theorists have been advocating for since the 20th century. However, in most American high schools, subjects remain siloed in 50-60 minute intervals, with math and reading receiving the bulk of the attention due to their importance in standardized testing.
In a STEAM project cited by the researchers students were assigned an art project that connected math to the world around them. The results showed that students engaged deeply with the meaning of mathematical concepts at a level rarely seen in traditional lessons.
Inspired by Renaissance intellectuals like Leonardo da Vinci who worked across disciplines, this model also echoes the youth campaign Teach the Future, which aims to break down barriers to teaching climate change.
Classic comic book characters that are inspired by biology, such as Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and Poison Ivy, can act as educational tools to help students learn about the natural world, writes Caitlyn Forster, a Ph.D. candidate studying bee behavior at the University of Sydney. In this article, Forster examines how comic book superheros can help make biology and other areas of science more intriguing by humanizing scientists and providing visual insights into the life cycles of animals.
The New York Times’ STEM Writing Contest invites students to investigate a STEM-related question, concept, or issue, and explain it to a general audience in 500 words. Natalia Araña was one of the top 11 winners of the annual STEM Writing Contest. Her story examined why Stradivarius violins are worth millions. For years, many have tried to identify and recreate the “brightness” and “brilliance” emanating from these instruments. In her winning essay, Araña takes readers back in time and reveals the mystery of why this violin’s sound is superior and difficult to replicate: global warming.
Analyzing science media can help prepare students to critically engage with scientific issues and give them strategies to evaluate claims they encounter online. New research suggests that without a foundation in science media literacy, students might overestimate the validity of scientific statements or be unable to distinguish between evidence-based statements and opinion.
The words we use to write about climate change matter. A September study from North Carolina State University suggests textbook wording that portrays climate change information as uncertain leads to a decrease in certainty among middle and high school students, even if they report they already know about climate change and its human causes. However, students’ certainty increased when textbook wording indicated greater certainty. This study has implications for how teachers can prepare students to confront misinformation around climate change. A report from the National Center for Science Education found that 10 states received a grade of D or worse for their standards in climate change education.
When Malone Mukwende started medical school in London, he identified a major health gap: Almost all the images and data used in his classes came from white patients. But medical symptoms for conditions from fungal infections to meningitis can look different on Black and brown skin, which may lead to misdiagnosis, prolonged hospital stays, and even death. With this in mind, he developed a visual handbook, Mind the Gap: A handbook of clinical signs in Black and Brown skin, to provide doctors and patients with a greater range of images to identify conditions on darker skin tones.
Educators have used gaming as a teaching tool for years. Coupled with real world examples, it can help students think critically about issues that affect their communities and model solutions. In February, Winter Storm Uri left dozens of Texans dead and millions without power—and exposed an aging energy grid unprepared for a changing climate. NOVA’s Energy Lab game gives students the power to decide their city’s energy future with interactive tools to build a more resilient energy grid in the face of climate change.
At 15 years old, Gitanjali Rao is not your typical teenager. She was named TIME’s first Kid of the Year, out of more than 5,000 nominees. She spoke to Angelina Jolie about her work using technology to tackle issues like contaminated drinking water, opioid addiction, and cyberbullying, and she’s only getting started. Rao dreams of creating a global community of young innovators to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.